Tag Archives: United States

A Look Back at 1911 – Events from a Century Ago

Happy New Year, readers!  And best wishes for a successful and prosperous 2012!  While I’ve been browsing through old family photographs and correspondence, I came across some old postcards, mostly from the 1911-1914 period.  One of the first I found was this one, wishing a happy 1911.  As we approach a new year, it’s common to reflect on the one that’s ending.  This post will explore some of the themes and stories that were present in our ancestors’ minds a century ago, as 1911 came to a close.

Soldiers from the Scots Guards open fire on the cornered anarchists in the Siege of Sidney Street in London, 3 January 1911. Image is from a 1911 postcard illustrating the siege.

The year began with the world following the Siege of Sidney Street (also known as the Battle of Stepney), in London, where two members of a group of burglars with anarchist leanings were killed in a blaze that consumed their hideout and embroiled then-Home Secretary Winston Churchill in a controversy regarding his role in the skirmish.

Scenes from the Mexican Revolution via Wikipedia

A major news story of 1911 was the ongoing Mexican Revolution, which had started in 1910 and raged throughout the year, resulting in the May 1911 overthrow of longtime president/dictator Porfirio Diaz, who had led the  country since 1876.  By March, such concern arose in the United States over what had become a civil war in Mexico that the US sent 20,000 troops to the border along with 15 warships.  By November, the leader of the opposition forces of the revolution, Francisco L Madero came to power and assumed a presidency that would last less than two years when he was assassinated by military leaders who had remained loyal to Porfirio Diaz’s ideals.

In February 1911, the world watched with horror as famine raged across China causing thousands of deaths and untold suffering.

In the year’s first celebrity wedding, in February, John Beresford, or Lord Decies – an Anglo-Irish army officer, married Helen Vivian Gould, a socialite and daughter of a railroad executive and an American actress.  Scandal rocked the US Senate in March, when an investigation looking into accusations of bribery and unethical campaign activities against Senator William Lorimer (R-IL) culminated in a failure to unseat him.  A second investigation begun later in 1911 resulted in his unseating during 1912.

March 25, 1911 First published on front page of The New York World 1911-03-26, via Wikipedia

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire hit New York City on March 25, 1911, resulting in the deaths of 146 men, women, and girls.  It remains the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City, and the third-largest disaster in the city’s history.  The majority of the victims, mostly women aged between 14 and 48 years of age, were recent Jewish and Italian immigrants who died from fire, smoke inhalation, or from jumping from the building’s eighth, ninth, or tenth story-windows to the street below.  An investigation after the fire learned that managers had locked the doors leading to the stairwells and exits.

Great advances were made in the field of aviation during 1911.  Pierre Prier, a pilot from France, flew a monoplane from London to Paris without stopping, covering the 290 miles in about four hours.  A non-stop flight today takes a little less than 90 minutes.  Harry Nelson Atwood flew 576 miles on July 14 from Boston to the White House lawn and in August, flew from St. Louis to New York, making 11 stops over a 1250 mile distance.  Before the end of the year, Calbraith Perry Rodgers made history when he completed the first flight across the United States on November 5, 1911.

June 1911 saw the coronation of King George V, who remained Britain’s monarch through World War I and until he died in 1936.  June also marked the silver wedding anniversary of President Taft and his wife Helen Herron Taft.  Some 8,000 guests arrived for the gala held at the White House on June 19.  The RMS Olympic, of the same set of White Star ocean liners that included the Titanic, completed its maiden transatlantic voyage when it pulled into New York in June.

Astor and his wife Madeleine

During the summer of 1911, the country commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Bull Run, the Civil War’s first big battle.  In September, the US watched another wedding – this one between John Jacob Astor and Madeline T. Force.  She would later survive the Titanic disaster.  He would not.

1911, specifically October, saw many deaths of the famous.  On October 2, Read Admiral Winfield Scott Schley, hero of the Spanish-American war‘s Battle of Santiago Bay, died.    About two weeks later, on October 14, Justice John Marshall Harlan of the US Supreme Court died.  Justice Harlan, a lawyer and politician from Kentucky, was a strong supporter of Southern segregation statutes and the criminalization of interracial marriage.  By the end of October, on the 29th, Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-American journalist most famous for his namesake journalism award, died while aboard his yacht in Charleston Harbor.

In November, Henry Clay Beattie, Jr. was put to death in Virginia’s electric chair for the murder of his young wife, Louise.  Just weeks after the birth of their child, Beattie killed Louise while on a car ride late at night.  He initially tried to blame a “highwayman” for the crime, but his story quickly fell apart.  After his execution, he was buried, ironically, in the family plot next to the body of his murdered wife.

Real photo postcard of rubble of the Los Angeles Times Building after the 1910 bombing via Wikipedia

1911 closed with confessions obtained for what was then termed the “crime of the century”.  In December, two Irish American trade unionists, John J. McNamara, and James B. McNamara, admitted to the 1910 dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times building and the Llewellyn Iron Works, respectively.  At the conclusion of the trial, James was sentenced to life in imprisonment and John sentenced to 15 years.  James’ crime, the bombing of the LA Times Building resulted in the deaths of 21 newspaper employees and injured 100 more.

These events and names, so popular in our ancestors’ lives of a century ago, may not be so well-known today, but the themes – tragedy, war, and celebrity still ring familiar. 1912 might be best known today for the sinking of the Titanic on April 15.  It’s also known as the year in which New Mexico and Arizona became US states.  What will 2012 be known for?  What new histories will be written?

Happy New Year, readers, and best wishes for a successful and prosperous 2012!


1918: Spanish Influenza invades Massachusetts

From The Boston Globe; 19 October 1918, Pg. 7

During the first weeks of the Epidemic, almost 4,000 people died in Boston as a result of the Spanish Flu.

As summer became autumn in 1918, the Spanish Flu struck hard at the eastern shores of New England.  Cases emerged in Boston, Brockton, Quincy, and Gloucester and at Camp Devens.  By mid-September, 21 flu-related deaths were reported in Boston alone.  By October 1, 85,000 cases had been reported statewide and the city was experiencing deaths at a rate of about 200 a day.  Doctors, health officials, and scientists rushed to control and find a treatment for the influenza epidemic as they watched victims die within days, or even hours, of the appearance of their first symptoms.

John Owen, my grandfather, was just 17 years old and living in Lawrence, Massachusetts at the time.  He remembered seeing the wagons come around the streets of Lawrence to collect the bodies of those who had fallen victim to the flu.  As he explained it, the horse-drawn wagons would approach from the end of the street and collect bodies placed on the sidewalks, or carried out from houses.  Coffins became scarce at the height of the epidemic and workers were forced to pile the bodies one atop the next, and carry them to mass graves.

By Uncredited photographer for St. Louis Post Dispatch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With masks over their faces, members of the American Red Cross remove a victim of the Spanish Flu from a house in St. Louis, Missouri.

From National Archives and Records Administration

Street car conductor in Seattle not allowing passengers aboard without a mask. 1918.

As influenza cases and death tolls mounted in Boston and statewide, panic emerged.  Misinformation and fear abounded.  What were the symptoms of the flu?  How could it be distinguished from the common cold?  The US Public Health Service soon released a pamphlet, informing the public that the Spanish Flu came on suddenly, striking the victim with pain and soreness throughout his body, especially in the eyes, ears, back and head.  Some experienced dizziness and nausea; most suffered fevers as high as 104°F that lasted as long as four days.  The US Public Heath Service advised that flu sufferers looked sick and likely would have bloodshot eyes, a runny nose, and a cough.

From The Lowell Sun, 27 December 1918, pg. 11

As the flu season progressed, advice to those nervous about getting sick was offered from many sources.

Beyond the pamphlets, schools became a means of disseminating information about the disease to children and their families.  During the height of the epidemic, the National School Boards Association advised the worried public to avoid sick people, crowds, and badly ventilated places, to keep warm, and to change from wet clothes quickly.  This is familiar advice, even for us today.  Local papers took it a step further, perhaps sensationalizing their advice somewhat, in order to attract more readers.

To slow the spread of the disease, public buildings, schools included, in Lawrence and many other New England cities and towns were closed.  Haverhill, Massachusetts went a step further and prohibited its schoolchildren from attending motion picture houses or other public meetings during the epidemic.  In Marblehead, Massachusetts, the high school building was converted into a hospital by the Board of Health in October 1918.  Boston’s Committee of Public Safety asked school teachers to attend flu victims; most did as schools were closed indefinitely.

From: CDC, released into public domain

This May 29, 1919 photograph showed rows of tents that had been set up on a lawn at Emery Hill in Lawrence, Massachusetts where victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic were treated.

During the epidemic, fresh air was thought paramount in protecting against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were set up in many Massachusetts cities and towns to treat the infected.  The first opened on Brookline’s Corey Hill on September 9, 1918.  Gloucester, Ipswich, Brockton, Waltham, Haverhill, Springfield, and Barre soon followed.  My grandfather would have also seen Lawrence open its own emergency camp for flu victims from the city, as well as cases from the neighboring communities of Methuen, Andover, and North Andover.  Controversy surrounded the opening of the Lawrence camp, named Emery Hill, which had been a large dairy farm that supplied milk to nearby residents.  Though the residents objected loudly to Lawrence’s Mayor Hurley; in the end, Lawrence city officials protested that they had little say in the matter.  They maintained that the state had chosen the site and was running the hospital.  By October 12, 1918, the camp had 150 patients.

In the end, more than one in every four people in the US suffered some form of the Spanish Flu, and within one year, the average life expectancy for a US citizen was shortened by 12 years.   Worldwide, more than 50 million people died – more than three times the number of lives claimed by World War I.

The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 is frequently overlooked in discussions about the history of the United States.  Does your family have a story about its experiences with the epidemic?  Did you lose any family members to it?